The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton is a whodunnit version of Groundhog Day set at a country house party. There is a twist: the Bill Murray character must live each day in a different body, a host, and solve a murder or never escape back to his normal life. I found this to be a tortuous, convoluted and mystifying plot, impossible to review without giving away clues (intentionally or not), but I will have a go.
If you like conventional detective stories which follow the rules of crime fiction, presenting a challenge to be solved, this may not be for you. If you like going on a mystery journey where nothing is as it seems, you will like it. Mysteries work when the reader has something to cling onto, to make them identify with a character, to make them care, to give them someone to root for. This story has so many unknowns I spent most of the story in a state of confusion. Like Coco Chanel dressing for the evening and then removing two elements to ensure she wasn’t over-dressed, I finished this book wishing the author had undertaken a similar cutting exercise. The solution to the murder, and the fate of the protagonist were not the elements I found most fascinating; I enjoyed the challenge faced by Aiden – if that is his true name – when he inhabits the body of a host, a stranger. The obese body but sharp mind of Lord Ravencourt; the over-excited Jonathan Derby who acts without thinking and molests the chambermaids; the beaten-up butler who knows a lot but lays in bed drifting in and out of consciousness.
The list of characters is so long – with too many similar names, Millicent/Madeline, Daniel/Donald – plus others who are simply unnamed background extras, I couldn’t remember which each one was. This is complicated by the fact that the hero – whose name might be Aiden Bishop – doesn’t know who is who either. He doesn’t know who can he trust, who has he already met at Blackheath House, and who he knew before arriving at the party – as he also has amnesia about his real identity and previous life. Two/three other people are also experiencing this mobile bodied state, and Aiden is competing with them to solve the crime. Because only one, he is told by the mysterious fancy dress Plague Doctor, will survive. Oh and there’s a mysterious footman too who may or may not be trying to kill Aiden. Oddly, none of the other time-trapped people appear in Aiden’s body.
By a quarter through I was seriously confused and becoming seriously irritated. Is this a story best read in one sitting, so you are better able to remember all the twists and obfuscations? But the book is not short, 528 pages. Or could it be that there is just too much going on? A closed room mystery, each day repeating itself, a hero with amnesia who must relive each day in a different host body and be influenced by the stranger’s body and personality, a murder that happens every night meaning the victim cannot be rescued, a competition to solve the murder in order to survive, obtuse threats from sinister unidentifiable figures, key characters introduced rather late in the game. There is no doubting the planning skills of the author but at times I did suspect he set out to wilfully confuse rather than tease the reader. I ran through various scenarios: is it a game show, is it a wind-up like Candid Camera, is Aiden the murderer and doesn’t know it, is Aiden the murderer and cleverly duping everyone?
Ambitious, overwhelming, fantastical, mysterious, I can’t help but admire the ambition of the author and the scope of his story. Hidden beneath the machinations are two serious questions: how far will a person go in order to escape an intolerable situation, and is it ever possible to escape your own past? A Marmite book: love it or hate it.
‘The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle’ by Stuart Turton [UK: Raven]
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